A Civilised Man
The amazing life story of the man who stole the treasures of the Acropolis and met with disaster
A Civilised Man is based on actual events: the looting of the marble treasures of the Acropolis, which were taken to London by Lord Elgin. The story behind this sensational affair has been transformed into an exciting, beautifully written debut novel.
Working in the service of the British Empire, Elgin was sent to Constantinople as an ambassador at the end of the eighteenth century. However, he soon ceased to focus on his diplomatic role as he became increasingly fascinated with the art in the temples of the Acropolis: statues, columns and frescos that lay gathering dust in the blazing Greek sun. Neither the Greeks nor their Turkish occupiers seemed to be too concerned.
Anker uses an old-fashioned omniscient narrator, but the perspective appears to move ever closer to Elgin, who is motivated by good intentions – he is worried that these artistic treasures will be lost if left in Greek hands – but more so by vanity and greed. Elgin is very calculating and cleverly abuses his position. He seizes the works of art and has them shipped away – in a seemingly endless process of negotiation and bargaining.
Back in London, following a period of captivity in France during which he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he has to sell his treasure for far less than it is worth, as its authenticity is doubted. He also loses a bitter court case for his father-in-law’s fortune. What started as an art-historical mission ends as a brutal battle that is anything but civilised.
What makes this novel stand out are the details with which Anker illustrates his story, right from the prologue, a heart-rending scene in which the young Elgin visits his father on his deathbed and gives him a picture he has drawn for him. After a brief conversation, his father sends him to draw a picture for his sick brother. Two weeks later, both his father and his brother are buried. This is the seed of the drama that will later unfold.
Lord Elgin, a distant relative of the picaresque heroes of Sterne (Tristram Shandy) and Mann (Felix Krull), tried to save the remains of an ancient civilisation, but ultimately destroyed himself. Jan-Willem Anker has transformed the bizarre events behind this notorious marble theft into a subtle and compelling story and, as a reader, you become wrapped up in moral, cultural and political dilemmas. Anker’s dazzling and witty style also offers pleasure on every page.